Troubled Waters

A good day for Bryce Groark involves spending six hours underwater in a hotbed of sharks.

He might just be insane—most people try to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the world’s scariest carnivore—but Bryce and his wife Jen have dedicated six years to filming their shark encounters for a documentary called Requiem that they hope will help dispel the collective fear of these ancient predators. The real fear, they say, is that if shark fishing and fining continues on its current path the ocean will soon be void of sharks for the first time in millions of years.

Saying sharks suffer from a bad image is an understatement. Their cold, unwavering eyes stare without blinking. Menacing jaws hang open hungrily, revealing row upon row of deadly jagged teeth. A commanding tail propels them through the ocean with movements that are both unnervingly jerky and primordially methodical.

Sharks are certainly not the beauty queens of the sea. Every winter on Maui people rejoice as the great Humpback whales return from their summer abroad and fill the seascape with their impressive spouts and lighthearted breaches. Visitors flock to the shorelines for a glimpse of the majestic mammals and pour money into the local economy. We study, protect and honor our annual visitors, humbly thanking them for choosing our waters for their yearly courting and birthing.

So, too, do we adore our dolphins, the playful jokers of the sea, with their cute curved noses and good-natured chatter. We relate to their social tendencies and familial bonds as they travel in pods. To our gentle sea turtles we attribute a wisdom and solidarity, a slow-moving and peaceful nature that deserves all the protection we can give them.

But despite holding a prominent place in Hawaiian mythology (see sidebars), sharks—the ocean’s apex predator and one of the most important elements in a healthy ocean ecosystem—have been vilified as sleepless, bloodthirsty monsters and condemned by a vicious reputation: man-eater.

Sharks have hardly earned their bad rap. Worldwide there are between 50 and 70 reported shark attacks each year resulting in five to 15 fatalities, according to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Health department records show that sharks bite fewer people each year than do New Yorkers. Many more people will die from drowning or cardiac arrest at the beach than from a shark attack.

In Hawaii there is an average of four shark attacks per year. The numbers are rising—there were six reported attacks in 2007—but the number of residents and visitors to the islands who spend time in the water has multiplied much faster than the rate of attacks.

That sharks bite and occasionally kill people is an undisputable fact that gets a lot of glamorized press. Less popular in the global media are the statistics showing that humans are the greatest threat to sharks and have depleted many species to the point of near extinction.

“It’s mass genocide, all day, every day,” said Bryce Groark in a recent interview.

The United Nations Department of Food and Agriculture estimates that about 100 million sharks are killed each year and nearly 50 percent of those are caught unintentionally. Sadly, most of the demand for sharks is just for their fins. Long-line commercial fisheries, like those that fish deep waters offshore between the Big Island and Oahu, often pull up sharks on lines set for big catches like tuna and swordfish.

The diminishing population of the top predators in the ocean food chain spells big trouble for watery ecosystems and coral reefs in Hawaii and around the world. Groark calls sharks “lazy hunters” because they primarily eat sick and weak fish and other carnivores. Without a healthy balance of sharks cruising the ocean, fish stocks would become less healthy while thriving carnivorous species decimate populations of algae-eating fish. The ecosystem would simply topple without an apex predator. Coral reefs could be severely damaged or even collapse.

Biologically vulnerable sharks have a huge disadvantage in the reproduction department, too. Sexual maturity for most species doesn’t come for as many as 20 years, and even then gestation periods are long and litters are small.

“Worldwide there is an epidemic,” said Groark. “Legislation for sharks is really weak. People seem to think, ‘Who cares about killing sharks?’ But this is a serious, important problem and there aren’t that many people talking about it.”

Of the over 400 species of sharks that have been identified, about 40 different species swim in costal and offshore Hawaiian waters. Whitetip reef, scalloped hammerhead, Galapagos, sandbar and tiger sharks are most commonly seen near shorelines, but enormous whale sharks, which have been recorded as large as 50 feet, and the occasional great white can be found in deeper waters. Tiger sharks are by far most often associated with shark attacks in Hawaii.

Despite the fact that so many species of sharks make Hawaii their home, Groark says spotting one shark, let alone a mob of them, in Hawaiian waters is rare, so he and Jen traveled to the Bahamas to shoot footage for Requiem. Even in the hotbed climate at the famed Tiger Beach they waited hours, and sometimes days, for shy tiger sharks to make an appearance.

Diligence got the couple some truly incredible footage, featuring petite Jen alongside enormous 20-foot tigers and smaller lemon sharks. Their goal is to raise awareness that something needs to be done about the rapid decline of the world’s shark population.

Shark meat provides inexpensive protein for poor communities in undeveloped countries around the world, but the biggest market for shark is in Asian countries that consume shark fin soup. This cultural delicacy, once reserved for royals and the upper class, has become a status symbol and celebratory meal and is now consumed in great amounts by the middle class. Hundreds of thousands of sharks are killed solely for their nearly tasteless fins, which make up about two percent of their body mass and fetch a high price on the global market. Tragically, the rest of the shark is often wastefully discarded back into the ocean.

Regulations for shark finning have been in place in the United States since early 2002 when the Shark Finning Prohibition Act was passed. It is illegal to bring a shark that is not intact into any U.S. port; fishermen who want to catch sharks must bring the entire carcass to shore. Several other countries, such as Australia and Puerto Rico, have similar policies, but vast amounts of unregulated international waters in the Pacific are plundered for shark fins.

“There are lots of small, isolated islands in the Pacific that don’t have the regulations and you’ll have large foreign vessels there trying to supply the shark fin trade,” said Nick Whitney, a PhD student at the University of Hawaii, Manoa who does research on the behavior and movement patterns of whitetip reef shark. “They can quickly decimate the shark populations in those areas.”

This is because many shark species are migratory by nature, meaning one found cruising by Kauai could have swum from as far away as California, Mexico, the Philippines or beyond. There are no international catch limits for oceanic sharks.

“It’s certainly possible that over fishing in other places could have an effect on shark populations here,” he said.

Hawaii’s waters may be protected from detrimental over fishing of sharks by commercial fisheries, but by-catch and recreational fishing of sharks have an impact, too.

A recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Oahu branch revealed that 75 percent of reef fish species, including sharks, are depleted to critical condition around Oahu, the Big Island and Maui.

“You can go to the Honolulu fish market any day of the week and find sharks. You can buy shark meat at Safeway,” said Whitman. “The biggest threat to sharks in Hawaii is incidental captures from recreational fishing. There’s also habitat loss.”

Groark believes that people would care more about the fate of these ancient predators if they didn’t fear and misunderstand them. Experts agree that there need to be international regulations of shark finning, better management of commercial fisheries and a worldwide effort to keep shark populations healthy.

“It’s a mindset, an attitude,” Groark said. “The collective fear is irrational. We are trying to let people know that we need to act now, before it’s too late. It’s just about changing people’s minds, letting them know that, hey, maybe it’s OK to cut the sharks some line.” MTW

Legend of the Sharkman

Not surprisingly, sharks are a ubiquitous part of Hawaiian mythology. Here’s a retelling of one particularly colorful tale…

Under the moonlight in Waipio Valley on the Big Island, a gorgeous woman named Kalei disrobed by the sea. She walked into the water and began to bathe. She was unaware that not 15 feet from where she washed her long and black hair, glided a huge shark. Curious, the shark watched her. Observed her. Became entranced by her.

No, this was no ordinary shark, but Kamohoali‘i, shape shifter and King of Sharks. Kamohoali‘i was not evil. On the contrary, in shark form, he loved awa (poured overboard to him by fishermen) and would help those lost on the sea back to shore by flipping his tail in the water to lead them home.

Kamohoali‘i took human form and sought Kalei’s hand in marriage. Although they truly loved each other, he never revealed his true nature. She became pregnant and before she gave birth he knew that it was time for him to go back to the sea. It was an emotional time for the lovers. He told her to give birth alone, to watch over his son, and to never let the child consume animal flesh. With great sadness, they parted and never saw one another again.

Kalei took the advice of her husband and was grieved when, after giving birth alone, she saw that her otherwise beautiful baby had a deformity on his back. Between his shoulder blades was a gaping hole that resembled a fish mouth. She named him Nanaue and was careful to always keep his back covered and out of site.

When Nanaue got older, his grandfather began to feed him meat because he wanted him to grow strong and become a warrior. Nanaue loved meat and couldn’t get enough of it, but after his first taste of it, his personality and body began to change.

The deformity on his back became worse. Instead of looking like an empty fish mouth, it grew rows of razor sharp teeth. When Kalei took her son to the pond to bathe, he shape shifted from a boy to a shark, chasing and eating schools of fish.

As he grew older, Kalei tried her best to tame and protect her son from his otherworldly nature, but his appetite for meat grew so strong that nothing would satisfy it but human flesh.

After many people went missing in the sea due to shark attack, the people of Waipio eventually realized that Nanaue was no ordinary man. They chased him out and he swam to Maui and then shape shifted back into human form in Hana.

He took a wife in Hana and for a while it appeared that Nanaue would be able to lead a normal life, but he couldn’t deny who he was. One night, the craving for flesh became so overwhelming that he kidnapped a young girl, threw her into the sea and, after turning into a shark, devoured her in front of many witnesses.

He swam to Molokai and tried to start again, but by this time horror stories of the vicious and murderous Shark Man were circulating throughout the islands. It didn’t take long for Nanaue to be found out. It was on Molokai that he was finally captured and killed.

His father, Kamohoali‘i still swims between the islands today.

–Starr Begley